Dan Brown is on trial in a London court for “reworking” ideas from another source and presenting it as his own.
The fictional material of his wildly popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, is apparently very similar to the nonfiction book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a work by three authors two of whom accuse Brown of stealing key ideas from their book. The copyright-infringement suit comes at a time when Hollywood is preparing to release the movie version of the novel directed by Ron Howard.
Brown denies he plagiarized anything from the earlier book. Instead of plagiarizing, he claims he merely “reworked” the ideas from others.
If this can happen in the writing of a good work of fiction, can it happen in the preparation of Sunday’s sermon?
The rise of plagiarism in preaching is an interesting development in the last few years. What formerly might be considered “sermon borrowing,” is now understood for what it is: stealing ideas from others without attribution.
One author expands the lexicon of terms that help illuminate the moral and ethical understanding of sermon plagiarizing: hypocrisy (the pretense of being someone else, i.e. someone better than one is in fact), lying and fraud.
The fact that preachers have borrowed one another’s material is well recognized and the reasons why this continues to go on are intriguing. Professor Hershael York at Southern Seminary rightly claims that plagiarism is often an indicator of other issues.
One pastor was caught after two years of consistently plagiarizing the sermons of others and cited his depression and ministerial burnout as a contributing factor. Another pastor plagiarized sermons as a way to mask the time being spent with another woman in an illicit affair. Those issues indicate the moral conflict within the minister.
But not all issues center in the moral life of the preacher alone. They should include the excessive expectations of an ever-demanding church.
Pastors are expected to churn out high-quality programs for all age groups and worship experiences that titillate and thrill the soul week after week.
Often the competition for what is presented as “what good sermons are like” comes from pastors of large churches who have the luxury of hired staff researchers who crack the nut of sermon preparation by giving the pastor a “clip and paste” approach to the hard work of crafting sermons that are culturally relevant and artfully voiced.
Pastors are increasingly caught in the headlamps of a church that’s frantic and demanding. Pastoring a church has gotten harder, not easier, and the Internet and its fee-based siren calls from sermon factories are alluring.
The vast majority of pastors are hard-working, hard-pressed persons who stand in the pulpit week-by-week with nothing better than what they can squeeze out on their own. In light of that, doesn’t the seduction of the Internet resources make sense?
Kent Edwards, President of the Evangelical Homiletics Society and Professor at Gordon-Conwell, claims pastors “have succumbed to the expectations of their churches to be omnicompetent and omnipresent.”
The result is the same that most church members know all too well, namely, the need to work faster, churning out more work than time or energy can afford. The pastor weekly faces the unholy demand a congregation unconsciously projects that the sermon should be simultaneously entertaining and spiritual.
The courts will hear the evidence and Dan Brown’s fate will soon be determined. Meanwhile, the average pastor must contend with the internal struggle of giving their best in the face of a church that can’t help itself.
The moral issue of cutting corners and plagiarizing can and should be a shared responsibility requiring both pastor and church the courage to question one’s contribution to the struggle.
Keith Herron is senior pastor at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).